How to make Animals using clay armatures.

We animals are frequently surprisingly similar and identifying those differences can be really difficult. Furriness or our perceptions built around our relationships can confuse the information and make it hard to see. Skinny legs supporting big bodies or building on larger scale where the weight of the clay is a huge issue causes a lot of problems.

This is the same technique I now use for making heads.  A simple clay armature supports the weight throughout the build and gives you a central point that you can work outwards from, allowing that most important key to success: making loads of mistakes and fixing them. You get to avoid hollowing out so that you can play around with textures while you are building. And you will be using the process to reorganize the information in your head: there is no better way to do that than hands-on.

The skeleton is a stick-figure with the right proportions (so important when you are being species specific) set out clearly and unambiguously. Fur, muscle shapes changing with the pose and fore-shortening in photos can confuse you leading to sculptures that are a cross between lifeless, amateur taxidermy and stuffed toys.

The key reason making naturalistic forms is so hard is that our perception (the way we take in our knowledge) that we have built up over our lifetime of what shape the thing is, is based around our general experience of that animal. Making a sculpture of that living, moving, person requires going against what ‘feels’ right and using information we are unlikely to have bothered with before. Portraiture has a system to organise the huge quantity of subtle details. Learning this system will broaden your knowledge, and your access to more knowledge, enormously. That’s why the study of Portraiture and Figurative Sculpture is traditionally the bed-rock of making Art.

The more you practice these invaluable skills the more you will see improvement in all your artwork, your general concentration and your ability to see. Like a pianist ‘doing scales’ you will build up the small muscles, motor-skills and neural pathways involved in this challenging, rewarding activity.

It is not rocket science and you can do it.

Because clay shrinks as it dries and is floppy when very wet, a Clay Armature that will support and shrink with the form through the drying and the firing is invaluable. All other types of Armatures must be perfect in shape or they will ruin the sculpture. And they limit your option to change your mind. Most cause disruption because they have to be removed: clay will shrink as it dries and crack around a rigid armature.

Most techniques for building  hollow, coiling or slabs, have a strong ‘voice’ of their own and will influence the final look of the piece. They can demand that you harden lower sections before you can build upwards and you are then unable to change them when you later realize they are wrong. This is a real disadvantage irregardless of your skill level. It is better to work solid over a clay armature especially if you are not using a scale-model and hollow out just before finishing touches. It’s not difficult. That technique is detailed here: Working solid and hollowing out.   

Working solid is an excellent method. You set aside the ceramic requirement for certain thicknesses in the clay until you are sure you have the best sculpture you can make at that point. The armature holds the weight up. Some areas can be built hollow too. When you essentially have the look you want but just before finishing touches, hollow it out.

The key to all sculpture is this:

1- Block out the form: decide the dimensions (height, width, length) including the base. Your clay armature will do this.

2- Work in rotations refining the whole sculpture at each turn (by adding or subtracting in the case of clay).

Working on a Small Scale.

Starting small will allow you to get your head around the issues and get results quickly.

Ideally use a clay with lots of grog in it because it will sag less, crack less, fire better or be stronger as self-hardening clay. Here I used Scarva ES50 Crank, an outstanding sculpture clay.

All Pottery Suppliers Online will be happy to recommend clay if you tell them what you want to make. Clays are made from recipes so there are endless kinds. You want a Hand-building clay with fine-medium grog ( pre-fired grit). Throwing Clay for the wheel will resent being an animal and be hard to handle. Many ‘Self- Hardening ‘ clays are over-priced and difficult or unpleasant to use.

Print your chosen animals skeleton to A4 or less size. This is half an A4 sheet. It gives you your height and length for this small sculpture. At this size my horse wont get to thick to fire: my clay has a lot of grog (gritty bits) so I will get away with the sculpture being 4-5 cm thick if it’s fired slowly.
Measure the distance between the feet and make a slab-base 1-2cm thick. Guess the width. This base will hold the legs steady until you are sure where to put the pose.
Lay clay over the skeleton diagram to copy the basic shape and sizes.
Cut between the legs. make a Temporary Support. This will bear the weight and keep the form steady while you work on it. At the end it will be carefully removed.
The size and shape of the Temporary Support can be changed as needed at any time.
Ta Daa!
Photos of the chosen horse will help you place the feet in a good place. They are surprisingly close together, set under the weight of the shoulders (like ours) and hips.
Fix them down by blending the clay into the base. This can be changed right up until the piece is dry. You could cut off a leg or any other part and redo it at any time. That’s one of the great things about working in clay.
Blocking Out: Do a little improvement to every part of the form then do Rotations again with a little more. And repeat! Layers and layers of work will allow the form to develop evenly.
Focus only on the essentials: the proportions NOT details.
Each bit affects how the other bits look: you might think the head looks wrong but actually the head is good, it is the neck that is wrong and so on.
The movement of working will cause the clay to slump. Check the height regularly by measuring your skeleton diagram. Squeeze the Temporary Support to make it higher. Work on the legs. Use a hair dryer to stiffen it up a bit.
Measure repeatedly from your invaluable diagram to get the proportions that will make it look like a horse not a cow or dog!
The tip of the tool marks one point, your finger makes the other: hold this and transfer it to your clay.
Mark the measurement on the clay. Add or subtract clay. Measure the next bit. Etc.
Sketching on the bones after measuring them will improve your sculpture, speed up your progress and increase your learning hugely. You are expanding your knowledge, challenging your habitual ideas, developing your eye for detail and improving your concentration. It is hard, fascinating and massively rewarding skill-building that will enhance your life. Seriously!
Notice and model which bits go behind: the bones and muscle of the legs go over the chest and hips.
The joints show you where the bendable bits are. Muscles can shrink or stretch.
Once your form has stiffened up a bit use tools rather than fingers for better control and a better bond in the clay: pick up a small bit of fresh clay with the tool, dab it on a piece of damp sponge in a dish of water and model it onto the form.
Use very little water or you will get a mushy, sticky mess prone to cracking later.
Double check the height, lengths. This one has sagged a bit so I fixed that. Focusing on the placement of the bones is much easier than trying to capture the gentle curves of a specific animal.
This is still the Blocked-Out ARMATURE. You have used the Craftsmanship of Portraiture to get everything in it’s key, horse-like place
Now I have a clear framework for my Creativity to play with!
Once you have the proportions right you can create the pose, type, age, character and mood of your animal.
A simple turn of the head brings it alive!
As you bend the form into your chosen pose look from above and use the spine to guide you so it doesn’t get distorted.
Blow-dry it a bit.
Now walk away and look at something far away for a few minutes to clear your eyes. Turn back: what is the first thing you notice? That is probably a bit that needs fixing or it might be the best bit. Sort out any problems now. On this one the back legs are set wrong, looks like he’s peeing…
Block-out all the details like mane, ears and tail. These parts are very expressive so take time over them in rough and they can be refined in your next set of Rotations.
Play around with textures. I’m thinking about the semi-wild Mountain Ponies here in the Brecon Beacons National Park.
The style you use should be consistent over the whole form: don’t over-do the face unless your whole animal is very detailed or it will look like a mask. Keep the features in proportion to the skull or it will look like a disease.
Use the tail and add plants on the ground to reinforce the legs. Work on the base to make it look as good as the animal.
At this point I set my self a very helpful Final Finishing Touches Rule;
A minimum of 5 Rotations with increasingly small tools: make additions of clay where ever you spot the need. Change tool and do a rotation of subtraction of clay. Then a rotation of adding etc, until you hit a rotation where you can’t see any more you could do. That means you have done your best on this piece.
If the legs are firm enough gently remove the Temporary Support in small pieces and touch up the form.
Trim the base nicely and under-cut it a bit to catch a shadow that will lift the whole piece and guard against ugly chipping. Sign and date the sculpture on the edge of the base or under-neath it.
Dry your sculpture slowly or the legs may crack as they will shrink faster than the rest of the form. A cardboard box placed over the top is ideal to slowly allow moisture to escape.
Self-hardened this will be delicate but last forever so long as it doesn’t get wet. Firing will make it stronger and water-proof. When it is dry/fired paint/wax/stain the surface : a simple all over bronze colour always looks great.

Working on a larger Scale.

I ran the following workshop over two days at the wonderful North Devon Ceramics Academy and Studio. Nicola Crocker and Taz Pollard have created a fantastic, fun, supportive and practical space for learning and sharing creativity in clay. I absolutely love teaching there. Nicola and Taz have a very genuine commitment to empowering other people and sharing their open and imaginative approach to the vast potential within ceramics. The Studio is spacious, bright and comfortable and the atmosphere is friendly, unpretentious and very encouraging.

This amazing group of all experience levels were a joy to work with. And they came up with some great improvements to the technique. You will also adapt it to suit your hands and ideas.

We are using the out-standing Scarva ES50 Crank clay (a stoneware clay with a lot of grog (ground up ceramic grit) in a variety of sizes from coarse to dust making it much easier to hand-build with because of the way it reacts with water (allowing for excellent joins) and it’s superb strength when leather-hard and also when dry. You can use different clays for the armature and exterior but using the same one means everything shrinks at the same rate during drying and firing.

Many thanks to Nicola Crocker for the great photos of the workshop.

The Technique:

Print out skeleton images of your animal, ideally in the same scale as you wish to make your sculpture, images of the whole animal and images of that animal in the pose you want. On to a stiff slab that will be your central support, carefully draw the skeleton.
This is an important opportunity to get your head around this animals construction. You can trace through the skeleton using pin-pricks or pressure. But measuring from the diagram to transfer the image will begin the process of clarifying your knowledge of the animal for the purpose of sculpture.
Here the skeleton is set clearly in a simple-to-read pose. The sketch is the pose desired. On the clay slab the skeleton is set in the pose. This is not easy to do, takes time and is a huge, worthwhile investment in your sculpture’s foundation and in your skills.
Using stiff slabs, stand your central support up ensuring it is nice and stable. Make good joins: while much of this supporting armature will be cut away eventually, some of it will remain and be useful during the firing.
Build outwards using images of the animal to assess the widths. Use comparative measurements: the rib-cage is twice the width of the head etc.
A narrow, standing figure like a meercat, will need something to support him or he will be and almost worst, look, very fragile. In the figurative tradition acceptable motifs are employed: think of those little shrubberies at the ankles of classic marble nudes statues. Or you can add a second figure and get support, a fascinating narrative and lots of fab negative shapes into the bargain.
Supports can added and removed all through the process. This wonderful student, herself a teacher came up with several practical and useful ways to improve this technique.
If you are comfortable doing it, build hollow. Or add the clay on solid. At this stage you are still building the frame-work for the sculpture: disciplined measurements will give you a great foundation that will give life to the artwork stage.

Squirrel.

This piece is all about the energy and character of this squirrel. The ‘fluffy tail’ can be a meaningless cliche and has not been used here.

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Work right around the form in layers giving full attention to the whole sculpture at each rotation. It is extremely important that you are always willing to cut off parts that are wrong no matter how long you worked on them. A beautifully crafted eye will look grotesque in the wrong place.
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Once your form is completely blocked out, with all proportions correct, switch to using tools to apply the clay rather than fingers. You will get a more attractive, stronger surface and can be more specific. A good habit is to go all around adding. Then all around subtracting, repeat until you can’t see what else could be done better at this point in your progression. Then hollow if necessary. Then do finishing touches (with small tools) Then poke a needle hole into any area that might contain trapped air.
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Add other types of supports if useful but remember they wont shrink with the form during drying so they can cause cracks.

Birds

Making birds is notoriously difficult because of their insane relationship with gravity. Work slowly in stages allowing the parts to firm up and add to the support system. Remove parts of your clay-armature cautiously in small stages.

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This flying bird will be set on a base as yet un-determined. The armature holds the pose well on this very tricky piece allowing it to change and develop.
Flying Bird.
Flaying Bird.
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A Crow.
This flexible technique can take you places you hadn’t thought of. Here the internal space has become part of the sculpture.
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A Crow.
Because the weight is supported and the skeleton provides strong boundaries you can play and feel your way around the form. The finished piece will need it’s own supports but here you can try various alternatives until you are happy with the look, strength and feel.
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A Crow.
Lots more trial and error will happen to this fascinating bird-scape in the next weeks.
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Flying Bird.
Take breaks, look out side to clear your eyes then glance at your sculpture and note what you first notice. If you hit a wall with it cover with a bag and walk away! I sometimes leave sculpture wrapped for months. I check regularly to mist with water and see if I can move forward again. Taking photos can be a good way to get some perspective. Ask others ‘what they see’ and compare that to what you want them to see. A dog that looks like a donkey has too big a head and too-tall ears for example.

Giraffe

A wonderful form where negative shapes play a stunning role. Their grace and movement is enchanting and very tricky to capture.

Giraffe.
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Giraffe
Five points of contact with the ground could give this piece stability but at this small scale those legs and feet are still so small. This elegant solution, where the central support is tidied up attractively and immediately becomes neutral, eliminates the distracting fragility.
Giraffe.

Wild Boar

This animal is iconic and has held it’s place in art for Millenia. It’s bulky form and thick fur can easily be over generalised into a blob on sticks. Here the skeleton secures the integrity of the structure. This sculpture is about his power and movement.

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Wild Boar
This piece will be completely cut away from it’s supports once it is firm to retain it’s shape, rested on foam and a hole made for a metal pin and base that will show off it’s galloping form once it’s fired.
Wild Boar
Wild Boar
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Wild Boar
The details of the face should be in balance with the rest of the sculpture’s texture and level of detail. At this small scale it is also a mistake to try and put on complicated detail. It will take a lot of time to find what can be left out. The skull will give you the clues: it is the structure of the face that matters.
Wild Boar

Cats

Cats are extraordinarily flexible and their exterior hides their structure. Making pets can be very difficult because we have so much knowledge of them that can cloud the sculptural information. Use the skeleton to keep on track with proportions that our nutty perceptions may think are similar to humans!

Crouching Cat
Standing Cat
Standing Cat.
Note the bend in the legs which is usually obscured by fur and the loose skin that allows cats to stretch so much.
Standing Cat
It is too soon for superficial details like ears. Focus on the key structure. This is still at Armature stage and it’s all about applying the Craftsmanship of Portraiture at this stage. The Arty, creative bit goes on top of that excellent, species-specific structure.
Crouching Cat.
The position of the bones and the length of the legs is very confusing and tricky to get right. Divide the problem into manageable steps:
Focus on the joint, they tell you where bends should be. Be sure the joint is in the right place.
Measure the bone’s length and swivel it from the joint.
Move to the next joint and bone. Etc.
Standing Cat.
This excellent, strong, central support allows you to place the legs where you want them on both sides to create the pose. Then the legs will stiffen and take on the extra work of holding up the weight of the body. The base should stay in place in the finished sculpture as it adds to the stability and strength of the legs. So, later that base can be made attractive.
Crouching cat.
Early stages with this one where it clearly wanted to be bigger! That was easy to change.
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Crouching Cat.
A beautiful, gentle way to address the eyes expressively, in keeping with the form.

Dogs

This student had gorgeous pictures of her adorable young dog, especially his loving face. But at this small scale she focussed on his movement and energy to portray him. She will paint his distinctive markings on in colour.

Dog
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Dog
Keep re-checking those measurements at every stage.
Dog
Dog
Dog
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Dog
The central support is removed gradually and with great care.
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Dog
The armature is cut away (but continues to function usefully inside). Needle holes will be poked up into the form to vent all the air pockets made by building hollow. Then a hole will be placed for a wooden dowel set in a base to display this dog leaping as he runs.

Meercats

These little guys have tiny feet and very slender legs. You could build some grass or rocks around their lower legs to give stability. Or add a friend.

Meercats
Meercats
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Meercats
Like the giraffe parts of the support wall could remain and no-one would notice because the charm of these characters and their friendship is far more engaging.
Meercats

Otter

This up-right stance gives similar problems to the meercats but the way otters stand gives plenty of attachment to the base.

Otter
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Otter
An otter’s simple form can be very difficult to capture. His gesture and poses are well recognized so that helps. Starting with the skeleton puts the key points of his body in the right place under that silky fur. There is a lovely change in loose to very smooth modelling on the surface that recalls water running off the fur.

The Horse

Like many big herbivores, horses have surprises in their skeletons that are key to their shape. A ridge of spurs along the spine limits over-flexing but also keeps predator teeth away from the precious spinal column. It defines their characteristic silhouette. The skull seems bizarre but get that blocked in well and the head will look great, even in a small scale.

Horse
Horse
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Horse
Follow the transition points of the legs very carefully.
Note how those big neck muscles cross and attach behind the shoulder blades.
At this stage it is almost as if the legs are just attached to the edge of the body but you now know those leg bones go right up near the spine and have a wide range of movement which can be gauged by measuring the length of a bone and pivoting it from it’s socket. It was suggested that you could cut up a spare skeleton in order to make a hinged ‘shadow puppet’ that could be helpful in designing the pose from a standing skeleton.
Horse
Taking full advantage of the central support.
Horse

Armadillo.

These guys go well out of their way not to look like animals all! They have extraordinary skeletons, well worth studying. But it has to be said that apart from getting proportions right, the hard shell-like outer skin means you see no clues of the bones showing on the armadillo’s surface. Their shell is a very subtle, beautiful shape with exquisite patterns.

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Armadillo
This student did all the skeleton work as part of the workshop. But then he switched to working solid/hollowing (this link takes you to a post specifically about that technique) out as a technique far better suited to armadillos.
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Armadillo
On solid clay use your skeleton to identify the right proportions.
Armadillo
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Armadillo
Use a serrated kidney tool to shape the body. Then use a flat wide modelling tool to add clay and further refine that gently undulating form.

Your central, weight-bearing support does not need to be flat/straight: Both of these abstracts below were built outwards from a stiffened, curvy, up-right central shape of various thickness set on a metal rod. You can see parts of the original central support where it became part of the final form, much like the sculpture of the Giraffe above.

Antarctic Harbinger III, 26cm H x 37cm W x19cm D.
Antarctic Leviathan, 45cm L x 23cm H x 12cm D.

Quality Joints:

Genuine joins are formed when the chains of platelet-shaped particles from each section inter-lock. Picture a magnified image of hair.

Score marks do not give the surface ‘tooth’; they allow water into the clay-body. On vertical surfaces they hold the water in place to give it time to sink in and swell the clay so that the platelets are able to link with other platelets.

Slip is not ‘glue’, it is clay particles spread out in water and has little strength, especially when it has dried . It is ideal for holding a lot of water in place to give it time to be absorbed to soften the area of leather-hard clay.

Once both edges are softened put the pieces back together and move them back and forth until you feel the edges lock together.
Manipulate the softened clay at the join to encourage further integration of those particle-chains and to disturb the straight line of the join; cracks love to zing along a nice straight slip-weakened join during the firing when the pull of shrinking stresses the sculpture.

Thicknesses: cracking/breaking.

How thick the clay can be to fire well depends on the amount of grog (the gritty bits of pre-fired clay ground to specific sized grit/dust that gives improved structure and resilience to your clay), the denseness of your modelling style, drying time and the speed of your firing.

Air bubbles trapped in the clay will expand with the heat. Grog and/or a loose surface will allow the air to seep through the clay. The same is true with water but steam expands fast. If your piece breaks into big bits during the fire it was trapped air and you will be able to see where the bubbles were in the shards. If it blows up into a trillion smithereens it wasn’t properly dry!

Drying:

I dry thick sculptures slowly under plastic which I turn inside out ( to avoid condensation pooling) daily for 4 weeks minimum and then 1-2 weeks in a plastic tent with a dehumidifier.  A card-board box makes a great, slow, draft-free drying chamber. A long dry allows the water to level out, as water loves to do, and that will enhance the structure of the clay within it’s new sculpture shape. You will get less cracks or distorting in the fire.

I fire very slowly with an 18 degree C rise until 600 degrees C. then onto full power up to the desired temperature.

Generally 3cm is a fair maximum thickness for a well grogged clay.

There is good essential advice about handling clay on the post about Coil Building.

How To Make a Head is essentially the same method and you will find it helpful. It talks about human heads but of course is relevant to all heads apart from the handy option of being able to measure with callipers from your own.

One thought on “How to make Animals using clay armatures.

  1. Pingback: How To Make Small Sculpture and Models | Rebecca Buck

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